Monday, February 11, 2013

NC Legislature Challenges Municipal Planning Authority - Davidson in the Crosshairs

The new NC Legislature has bills in the works for legislation which would enforce limitations on current planning authority for the State's municipalities.  For town's like Davidson that place a very high premium on town planning and design, any attempt to limit that authority is seen as unacceptable influence from Raleigh on local control.  Some of these supposed limitations could just be imagined. Others, certainly would be painfully real.  Regardless, they are bound to have those at Town Halls across the state in an uproar if these bills go forward. 

Will all the municipal hand-wringing be justified?  Let's take a look at what these bills would accomplish.

The first bill is a reincarnation of a bill which died in committee last session when the clock ran out.  That bill was  S731.  Senate Bill 731 intended to enforce limitations on the ability of municipalities to control development through certain types design restrictions.   According to an email from Senator Dan Clodfelter (D-Mecklenburg) who was the bill's sponsor the last time, S731 is planned to be resubmitted.  As of January 31 that resubmission has not yet happened.

This bill was apparently so egregious that it spawned a full-blown study of its impacts by the Town of Davidson.  This study was conducted using Town resources under Davidson's CDC-funded Design for Life program.  The D4L program has funding to conduct three annual Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) on various aspects of design issues affecting the town.

Here was Senator Clodfelter's response when asked if a bill like S731 would be reintroduced.

"SB 731 passed the Senate last session (by a very strong bipartisan vote), but it arrived in the House too late in the session to be considered before adjournment.  It will be reintroduced this year.  The bill has no effect on such things as walkable design, bike-friendly design, or anything of the sort.   I have read the “study” and was perplexed by the fact that the authors of the study seemed to be talking about a piece of legislation they had never even read.   There has been a great deal of “Chicken Little” reaction to the bill, and that has been equally perplexing.   The bill actually is a restatement and reinforcement of current zoning statutes, which I think are quite direct about the permissible subjects that may be regulated through zoning ordinances.   The need for the bill has come about because some local governments have been simply ignoring the limitations in the current statutes.   I do not know whether Davidson is one of them."

So, when Davidson Mayor Woods said at Board work session recently “finding a champion in Raleigh for our side of this is going to be a challenge.” ( 1/23/13), the sentiment behind Senator Clodfelter's email would likely be the reason why.

The second piece of proposed legislation actually has been submitted.  It's impacts would be much more far reaching.  House Bill 79 - Annexation Amendment - would amend the North Carolina State Constitution to much more strictly limit annexation of unincorporated areas within the state.  The new language would amend Article VII of the State's Constitution to include:

The General Assembly may not authorize any annexation initiated by a city, town, or other government subdivision unless the eligible voters living within the proposed area of annexation, and they alone, are allowed to vote, and the proposed annexation is approved by two‑thirds of those voting. Such election shall be placed on the ballot in accordance with law within the proposed area of annexation for the general election next occurring after the municipality proposes the annexation. This paragraph does not prohibit property owners from requesting annexation if they so desire. No city, town, or other governmental subdivision may exercise any jurisdiction beyond the corporate limits. 
If passed, this change would need to be approved by a statewide referendum before becoming law... 

this act shall be submitted to the qualified voters of the State at the statewide general election on November 4, 2014, which election shall be conducted under the laws then governing elections in the State. Ballots, voting systems, or both may be used in accordance with Chapter 163 of the General Statutes. The question to be used in the voting systems and ballots shall be:
"[ ] FOR          [ ] AGAINST
Constitutional amendment requiring municipal annexations not requested by the property owners to be approved by a two‑thirds vote of the voters in the area to be annexed, and prohibiting municipalities from exercising jurisdiction outside their borders."

In boom times, municipalities have used annexations and the additional tax revenues generated by them to fund new spending.  This legislation would effectively bring that to an end.  While strictly limiting unrequested annexations would impact all municipalities, it's that last part (highlighted in bold) which could particularly impact towns like Davidson.  Davidson exercises planning authority in select areas outside the Town boundaries.  This amendment would bring to an end control over areas within the town's Extra-Territorial Jurisdiction or ETJ.

In an email to Rep. Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus), one of the bills primary sponsors, when asked about the intent of that language and if it would strip authority over areas like the ETJ, the response was short and to the point.

"That is the intent of that wording."

If you are a fan of limited government, then these two bills seem like common sense.  Ensuring municipalities do not exercise authority outside their approved powers and protection of property rights are definitely good things.  However, placing limits on government authority is not everyone's main objective.

As part of its agenda on Tuesday 2/12/13, Davidson's Town Board will discuss its legislative priorities for the coming year.  It would be surprising if these two items are not a hot topic of conversation.

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